Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2013/Spring/Mrs. Mac Mabe

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Sharecropping family in Wilmington, NC

This page is connected with English 105 at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories


Mrs. Mac Mabe was a widowed, elderly woman who lived with her two grown children and granddaughter in Walnut Cove, North Carolina during the late 1930s. Her family suffered greatly during the Great Depression, financially, emotionally, and physically. Louise L. Abbitt recorded the details of Mrs. Mac Mabe’s life in an interview for the Federal Writers’ Project in 1939.


Mrs. Mac Mabe was one of fourteen children raised in a poor and broken home. Her mother died while she was still a child and her father married twice. Her father did not take care of his children so neighbors raised her and her siblings. She went to school through 5th grade, but was not able to attend consistently during those years because she had to work on the farm. She married her husband, Jim, when she was twenty-three years old and they had seven children together. They rented a farm in Dennis, North Carolina and lived on a tight budget, but Jim earned enough money to ensure the family had the necessities. After some time, Jim started to have heart trouble and was not able to continue farming so the family moved to Walnut Cove, North Carolina. They rented a two-room shack, which was in desperate need of repair, on the outskirts of town where the family struggled financially. In July of 1937, Jim committed suicide after showing signs of mental instability.

As an elderly woman, Mac Mabe lived in Walnut Cove with two of her grown children and her granddaughter. Mac Mabe’s daughter passed away shortly after giving birth so Mac Mabe became the little girl’s primary caretaker. The family faced extreme poverty after Jim’s death; the shack they lived in had fallen into disrepair, their diets consisted almost exclusively of potatoes, and they were forced to use household objects as firewood. The rest of Mac Mabe’s children were married and had families of their own to support so they could not offer substantial help to their mother. The family also dealt with various illnesses amongst family members, which consumed a majority of the money that came from Mac Mabe’s old age pension, their only source of income.[1]

Social Issues:[edit]

Poverty in the Great Depression:[edit]

Mrs. Mac Mabe’s description of her family’s living conditions indicates that they were living in extreme poverty; however, this was not a unique experience. Throughout the United States, a large majority of Americans faced unemployment, starvation, and homelessness during the Great Depression. The South was hit particularly hard due to the emphasis on growing cash crops rather than food to feed families. Leading up to the economic crash of 1929, food prices declined, farm costs increased, and conservation methods were poorly managed; consequently, farmers were not able to make a profit on the sale of their cash crops.[2] As a result, many families were undernourished and developed dietary diseases because they could not afford food. According to the Report on Economic Conditions of the South, the South was a “belt of sickness, misery, and unnecessary death.”[3] Women and children were forced to search for work to help support their families; however, job opportunities were scarce. Due to the dire situations faced by their families, many women bore the burden of supporting their families both financially and emotionally. An article in the journal Feminist Studies states that women were expected to maintain the unity of their families “yet cooperation and increased female responsibilities did not always provide greater family cohesiveness or stave off the economic effects of the crisis; the Depression disrupted people’s lives.”[4]


Mac Mabe’s husband, Jim, committed suicide in 1937, at a time when many people had lost their life savings and were faced with increased pressure to ensure they could afford the necessities. Suicide rates during the Great Depression soared, particularly between 1929 and 1933, in response to the stock market crash, and between 1937 and 1938 during the New Deal.[5] The pressure to provide was especially felt by men, as their traditional role was to provide for their families financially. A study published in Public Health Reports states that the suicide peak that occurred during the Great Depression “is much more marked for males than for females, if indeed it can be said to exist at all for females.”[6] A large portion of men were faced with the reality that their families were suffering and the opportunities to improve their situations were few and far between. For some men, this burden became too much and thus, felt suicide was their only option.

Historical Production Issues:[edit]

The Federal Writers’ Project, part of the New Deal, was intended to provide relief to writers during the Great Depression.[7] Writers were commissioned to interview regular citizens to provide an illustration of American life. However, the project had few regulations, allowing the writers to exercise a substantial amount of creative freedom. Leonard Rapport, a writer who participated in the program, stated that “persons who consider themselves writers, or who are told they are writers, in their heart of hearts begin to think of themselves as creative writers, and, most likely, in the innermost adytum, potential fictions writers.”[8] Most of the writers were trying to make a name for themselves; thus, the desire to produce appealing work likely outweighed the desire to produce historically accurate work. “The Life History of Mrs. Jim Shelton” flows in a story-like fashion, with Mac Mabe narrating her story chronologically. However, it is unlikely that the interview flowed this smoothly. While it is unclear as to whether the interview was embellished or how much creative freedom was taken, it seems likely that Abbitt took some creative freedoms when recording the life history in order to make it appealing to readers. This question is not unique to Mac Mabe’s life history, as similar themes are seen in many of the life histories from the Federal Writers’ Project. Thus, the historical accuracy of the works from the Federal Writers’ Project has been questioned.  


  1. Mrs. Mac Mabe. “Life History of Mrs. Jim Shelton.” Federal Writers’ Project. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Southern Collection. Print. p. 1-7.
  2. Bishop, RoAnn. “Difficult Days on Tar Heel Farms.” North Carolina Museum of History. North Carolina Museum of History, 8 April 2013. Web. 10 April 2013. http://ncmuseumofhistory.org/workshops/The_1930s_in_North_Carolina/Session1.html#economy para. 1.
  3. qtd. in Schulman, Bruce J. From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1991. Web. 14 Apr. 2013. http://books.google.com/books?id=KeVTlZrmRXwC&pg=PA3&dq=report+on+economic+conditions+of+the+south+%22belt+of+sickness,+misery,+and+unnecessary+death%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=UBdrUbaEDoek8AT_lICwAw&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=report%20on%20economic%20conditions%20of%20the%20south%20%22belt%20of%20sickness%2C%20misery%2C%20and%20unnecessary%20death%22&f=false. p. 3.
  4. Helmbold, Lois Rita. “Beyond the Family Economy: Black and White Working-Class Women during the Great Depression.” Feminist Studies 13.3 (1987): 629-655. JSTOR. Web. 6 Apr. 2013. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/stable/3177885?seq=3 MacMahon, Brian, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas F. Pugh. “Relation of Suicide Rates to Social Conditions.” Public Health Reports 78.4 (1963): 285-293. NCBI. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1915243/. p. 629.
  5. Ward, Belen. “Economy Influences US Suicide Rates, New Study Reveals.” Toonari Post. Toonari Post, 2 May 2011. Web. 13 Apr. 2013. http://www.toonaripost.com/2011/05/us-news/economy-influences-us-suicide-rates-new-study-reveals/. para. 3.
  6. MacMahon, Brian, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas F. Pugh. “Relation of Suicide Rates to Social Conditions.” Public Health Reports 78.4 (1963): 285-293. NCBI. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1915243/. p. 289.
  7. DeMasi, Susan Rubenstein. "The federal writers' project: a legacy of words." CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 49.7 (2012): 1195. General OneFile. Web. 6 Apr. 2013. http://go.galegroup.com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA282213294&v=2.1&u=unc_main&it=r&p=ITOF&sw=w. p. 1195.
  8. Rapport, Leonard. “How Valid Are the Federal Writers’ Project Life Stories: An Iconoclast among the True Believers.” The Oral History Review 7 (1979): 6-17. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3675185?seq=12. p. 14.